I recently finished reading Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold. It won the 2004 Hugo for best novel. It is a sequel to the 2001 Hugo-nominated Curse of Chalion, which I haven’t read, which purportedly features a different protagonist and largely non-overlapping cast of characters, and which was not at all necessary as a prerequisite to enjoying Paladin of Souls. I picked up PoS as I was familiar with Bujold’s epic science fiction series focusing upon Miles Vorkosigan and was curious as to how she would handle what appeared to be a fairly traditional fantasy novel. I enjoyed the Vorkosigan books, but – despite being a damn fine book – this novel was really nothing like them.
The protagonist is a forty-something royal dowager who starts off feeling trapped in court life. I was getting potential Mary-Sue vibes at first, which was worrisome, but these subsided as I continued.
What I found most interesting – and useful – in this novel was its depiction of religion, cosmology, and divine magic. Divine magic, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have much of a literary pedigree in fantasy pre-D&D, unless you count actual religious texts. One reason why it seems that Clerics are relatively unpopular in D&D despite arguably being the most powerful of the core classes, is just this lack of popular images.
Paladin of Souls makes a bold move toward filling that gap. It reimagines a simple polytheistic pantheon of gods and the basics of the cosmology in which they exist in such a way as to justify the granting of divine powers to mortals in certain situations while at the same time minimizing the direct interference of gods in the world. There is even an interesting and evocative reinterpretation of turning undead (for certain values of “turning” and “undead”).
Paladin of Souls is a good read. I’ll recommend it to just about anyone who likes Western fantasy, but if you’re generally uninspired by the possibilities of divine magic in rpgs and would like to change that, you should definitely check it out.